Stormwater bills get mixed reaction

Clark County business leaders, officials support proposals

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Clark County's stormwater problems were a big topic in Olympia on Wednesday, when several county business leaders and local government officials testified in support of two bills that would help the county deal with costly state stormwater regulations.

But the bills, introduced by Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, faced resistance from some Clark County citizens and the state Department of Ecology. Critics said one of the bills would simply give the county a new way to avoid meeting the state regulations.

Pike's House Bill 1235, being considered by the House Environmental Committee, would give the highest priority for state environmental grants to projects that need help complying with the state's stormwater runoff law. Other projects, such as those to prevent future pollution problems, could still get some grant money, but would be a lower priority.

The controversy centers on a 2007 Department of Ecology requirement that newly developed land drain as slowly as it did prior to Euro-American settlement. Clark County is working to comply with that rule after trying, without success, an alternative strategy for reducing groundwater pollution. County officials testified Wednesday that coming into compliance with state and federal environmental rules is an unfunded mandate the county cannot afford.

A representative from the Department of Ecology testified against the bill, saying the state should not take money away from counties working on other projects that improve the environment. House Environmental Committee members also asked whether the bill was fair to other parts of the state.

"Would we be rewarding the folks who have not stepped up and done the work (to comply) by giving them priority for state dollars?" asked the committee's chair, Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines.

Pike's other stormwater proposal, House Bill 1237, also received a mixed reaction. That bill would create a pilot program to test alternatives to existing state law for protecting the environment against stormwater pollution. Counties that have fallen out of compliance with the Department of Ecology's stormwater rules could apply to test an alternative program.

Under the bill, Clark County would be a prime candidate for the pilot program. If an innovative and less-expensive alternative to protecting waterways doesn't work, then the county could stop the program and implement the existing regulations, Pike said.

A few years ago, Clark County commissioners adopted their own ordinance to address polluted stormwater runoff and were put on notice by the state that they were in violation of their National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. The county took the case to court, lost its appeal and is waiting for a state Supreme Court ruling.

Representatives from Clark County's building industry told the House committee that Clark County has a high unemployment rate when compared to the rest of the state, and helping their industry would create jobs in the region.

Members of Identity Clark County, as well as the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, also testified in support of Pike's bill. The chamber's president, Kelly Parker, said the question mark surrounding stormwater rules in Clark County hinders business development.

"Uncertainty for business is just a killer," she said.

Opponents of the pilot program said they worried Clark County was again trying to skirt its environmental responsibilities. The county has "repeatedly avoided responsibility for clean water by failing to comply with the law," said John Felton, chairman of the Rosemere Neighborhood Association in Vancouver. The association is one group that challenged the county's first alternative plan for stormwater pollution control.

In one hopeful note for backers of Pike's pilot project bill, a representative from the Department of Ecology said he would be willing to work with Pike to change the language of her proposal so it could become one the agency supports. Creating a pilot program would cost the state roughly $200,000 during the 2013-2015 biennium, according to the state's Office of Financial Management.

State Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, introduced a companion to the pilot project bill in the Senate as Senate Bill 5435. A companion to the bill regarding state grants for stormwater compliance was introduced as Senate Bill 5441 by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center.